Benjamin Franklin writing about his time spent working at Watt’s Printing House in London, about the year 1725.
At my first admission into the printing-house I took to working at press, imagining I felt a want of the bodily exercise I had been used to in America, where presswork is mixed with the composing. I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great drinkers of beer. On occasion, I carried up and down stairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands; they wondered to see, from this and several instances, that the Water American, as they called me, was stronger than themselves who drank strong beer!
We had an alehouse-boy, who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner; a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he supposed, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labour.
I endeavoured to convince him that the bodily strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made; that there was more flour in a pennyworth of bread, and, therefore, if he could eat that with a pint of water, it would give him more strength than a quart of beer. He drank on, however, and had four or five shillings to pay out of his wages every Saturday night for that vile liquor: an expense I was free from; and thus these poor devils keep themselves always under.
Watts, after some weeks, desiring to have me in the composing-room, I left the pressmen; a new bien venu for drink (being five shillings) was demanded of me by the compositors. I thought it an imposition, as I had paid one to the pressmen ; the master thought so too, and forbade my paying it. I stood out two or three weeks, was accordingly considered as an excommunicate, and had so many little pieces of private malice practised on me, by mixing my sorts, transposing and breaking my matter, &c., &c, if ever I stepped out of the room, and all ascribed to the chapel ghost, which they said ever haunted those not regularly admitted, that, notwithstanding the master’s protection, I found myself obliged to comply and pay the money, convinced of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually.
I was now on a fair footing with them, and soon acquired considerable influence. I proposed some reasonable alterations in their chapel* laws, and carried them against all opposition. From my example a great many of them left their muddling breakfast of beer, bread and cheese, finding they could with me be supplied from a neighbouring house with a large porringer of hot water gruel, sprinkled with pepper, crumbled with bread, and a bit of butter in it, for the price of a pint of beer, viz., three halfpence. This was a more comfortable as well as a cheaper breakfast, and kept their heads clearer.
Those who continued sotting with their beer all day, were often, by not paying, out of credit at the alehouse, and used to make interest with me to get beer, their light, as they phrased it, being out. I watched the pay-table on Saturday night, and collected what I stood engaged for them, having to pay sometimes near thirty shillings a week on their accounts. This, and my being esteemed a pretty good rig-ite, that is, a jocular verbal satirist, supported my consequence in the society. My constant attendance (I never making a St. Monday) recommended me to the master; and my uncommon quickness at composing occasioned my being put upon work of despatch, which was generally better paid ; so I went on now very agreeably.
* A printing-house was called a chapel by the workmen, because printing was first carried on in England in an ancient chapel, and the title had been preserved by tradition. The bien venu among the printers, answers to the terms entrance and footing among mechanics; thus a journeyman, on entering a printing-house, was accustomed to pay one or more gallons of beer for the good of the chapel.
Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin; Written by Himself (1771 to 1790)
– Jeff Burks